Why We Should Indulge Quentin Tarantino

The release of a Quentin Tarantino film always follows the same routine. Hype, great reviews and then following release, the backlash. The Hateful Eight appears to be no exception, with soap opera drama of leaked scripts and cancelled productions. Only with Tarantino should the production be part of the plot!

The criticism is always along the same lines: too long, too violent, too indulgent, rips off everyone else. But is the casual criticism founded? The comments come from both those who like and dislike his films; “I hated it because…” vs “I loved it, but…”.

What you see is what you get with Tarantino. Complaining his films are too long or that he’s self-indulgent is like saying you enjoy the winter and then saying it’s too cold. All his films take their time and are laden with influences.

Reservoir Dogs is a reasonable length, as is Kill Bill or Death Proof. But consider that Reservoir Dogs is possibly part of the Pulp Fiction universe, hence the Vega character link and Kill Bill was merely part of a four-hour opus, as was Death Proof, it starts to become clear that Tarantino likes to wallow.

I enjoy his indulgent nature. I know if I’m going to see a Tarantino film chances are I’ll be there a while, but then I’ve always enjoyed narrative more than anything else; to see the director as the hidden voice, the story teller. Accept Tarantino’s method and those three hours for The Hateful Eight fly by without much of anything happening, particularly if you try not to assume anything about what is going on and just let it unfold.

Some directors plot films like they’re telling you a knock-knock joke, straight to the point. Others, more like a limerick with a dash of poetry. A romantic analogy, but Tarantino is like a guy at a campfire telling ghost stories, or an old man in a pub who knows everything that happened in the town for the last fifty years and likes to playfully tease those that bother to listen.

He is also like Spielberg or Hitchcock, or even Orson Welles, though he takes a lot longer than any of them to tell a yarn. He shares their thirsty nostalgic love for cinema and makes the films he would want to watch himself. To be one of the audience. And like a lot of this generation’s filmmakers he draws on what he’s seen before, but that’s not to be dismissed as talentless ripping off, especially not when done with the skill and brio he brings to it. Martin Scorcese made a documentary some years ago (A Personal Journey with Martin Scorcese Through American Movies, which is brilliant by the way) where he spoke of the director as a smuggler, demonstrating that motifs and sequences have been reused repeatedly since cinema began.

Quentin Tarantino is one of cinema’s most brilliant modern storytellers because while he boasts his influences a little more than he should, the films are still original. In Reservoir Dogs there are at least three plot lines nested together in a terrific piece of audacious writing. Pulp Fiction is just as fresh now, the perfect example of how his brand of procrastination can work. Only Death Proof tries my patience as it does with many people, but what he attempted should be congratulated; a modern twist on Psycho, proving that what Hitchcock achieved was extraordinary: Kill the central character halfway through, yet keep hold of the audience. It was the second bit Tarantino couldn’t quite grasp.

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Since Inglourious Basterds, he has shifted into a more character based and confident style. A style that exaggerates Hitchcock’s theory of suspense: that the drama is not in the bomb exploding, but in waiting for it to explode. A Tarantino movie is now typically people nattering while the tension builds and focuses to a point of cathartic, extreme violence. While some yearn for his leaner Dogs days, maybe this is the film-maker he always wanted to be.

So why is Tarantino so indulgent? Why can’t his films quite escape his shadow? Or should they? It’s worth considering him in relation to Sergio Leone and Once Upon A Time in The West in particular. He isn’t shy about any of his influences, but that one he positively shouts about, right down to Ennio Morricone creating original music for him. I can’t blame him as I think OUATITW might be the pinnacle of cinema as an artform pre-1970. I’m not dismissing the subsequent 50-ish years of film, but our modern view of cinema was formed in the 70s with the birth of the blockbuster and the rise of independents. It’s hard for us young(ish) film-nerds to put film history into context, avoiding nostalgia and revision. For the purposes of the example, we need to look at where Tarantino came from, which is Leone’s era.

Leone’s sprawling Western is the perfect marriage of Hollywood escapism and European restraint. From its earliest days Hollywood churned out movies in the mould of Romantic Realism (as Mark Cousins would call it); we recognise the worlds and situations the films present, but realise they aren’t necessarily real or of our time. The Italians, artistically speaking, responded to this sentimentality with neo-realism in the 1940s. Bicycle Thieves, Il Posto, etc., were fictional, but set in real places and acted by regular people often playing themselves. Camera style and editing were almost documentary-like. Neo-Realism then developed further with Pasolini’s Mamma Roma. It contains a couple of mistakes, but Pasolini left them in because… well, they happened. This led into Fellini’s , a fascinating journey through the brain of a director. We see his dreams, his fantasies, his reality, all the while he is trying to make an actual movie, partly the one we’re watching. A bridge between the artist and the audience had been created.

Genius it may be, but is not an easy watch. That’s the job of the Western to at least start with an intention to entertain, and so we reach Sergio Leone and his spaghetti. If we take it for granted that he has been brought up in a neo-realist world, but loving Hollywood, what kind of film is OUATITW?

It’s long, indulgent and operatic, but importantly the indulgence comes from not trying to hide that it is a film, the basic ‘rules’ of which Leone ignores. He tells his story with exuberance as if he himself was relating it. In The Good, The Bad and The Ugly we have the famous Ecstasy of Gold sequence, a perfect example of taking a simple moment and making it huge. Same with the opening gunfight in OUATITW. I wonder if people came out of the cinema saying, “fantastic! But a bit long. That Leone bloke and his ego, etc”.

A typical movie today might be more fun if just occasionally it would acknowledge that the audience is in on the joke. Consider the Bond franchise vs their inspiration, North By Northwest, a film fundamentally better because Hitchcock embraces the absurdity. Deadpool represents an opportunity to play with narrative again and break that trend, an opportunity that will more than likely be squandered.

Unlike Clint Eastwood who learned from and ultimately rejected Leone’s style, Tarantino embraces it. He does so, I would argue, naturally, not as a mimic, indulging where Romantic Realism couldn’t. It’s his stage, his sandpit and his play-pen. He interrupts The Hateful Eight with narration, so the narrative is literally embodied by the director, happy to remind us he’s part of the fun. Just as you would remember details about the camp-fire and the old man trying to scare you with shadows, so you remember his story.

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One has to be careful defending Tarantino’s excesses because we end up only considering him in isolation. The development of realism is just one thread in cinema’s rich tapestry and can be mirrored across the world, for instance, Japanese cinema. Tarantino certainly isn’t the only one who can employ that history. In 2015 Alejandro González Iñárritu won the Best Picture Academy Award for Birdman, a love letter to that arguably manages to be more entertaining than Fellini’s masterpiece. He has a chance of taking the same award this year for The Revenant, tackling Tarantino’s current favoured genre and stealing his thunder. He does all this quietly, without hype.

Tarantino is frustrating because he can be selfish and petulant. Jackie Brown was superb, but its relative misunderstood failure at the box office led Tarantino to say he’ll never adapt someone else’s work again, so he can’t take a direct hit to his ego. And while he can pull together as good a soundtrack as anyone, on the flip-side, this is only because he can’t work with a composer. Ennio Morricone did segments of original music for The Hateful Eight, but only segments. Then there’s the usual noise around sequels and prequels and uncut versions (will we ever get Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair?) or the rubbish about retiring. Perhaps he simply needs to shut up and let his work speak for itself.

Put his ego aside (if you can, it’s got some weight to it) and separate his films from his personality and there’s nothing else quite like anything in his oeuvre; all are brazenly violent, entertaining and artistically credible in equal measure. You might baulk at the running times (Kubrick covered the evolution of mankind in less time than an average Tarantino flick), but peek under the surface and question if it really could be shorter. You’ll find a rarely matched standard of screenplay and mise en scene from a master film-maker who simply loves movies as much as the rest of us.

Solo Affect: The Narrative of Star Wars

The following article contains huge spoilers regarding Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.

One of J J Abrams’ strengths as a director is that he is a superb mimic. Super 8 was a Spielberg film in all but name and The Force Awakens predictably apes George Lucas who was taking his inspiration from Akira Kurosawa (the 70s Lucas. The 90s Lucas took his inspiration from money and yes-men while hiding in an ivory tower/ranch). Thanks to using actual Kodak film, cinematographer Dan Mindel has even added grain to the new film giving it an old fashioned soft-focus. If a bit more frantic in the telling, the plot line is very much a retread of the elements in A New Hope. If that sounds like a backhanded compliment, it really isn’t because the new film feels like an old friend. It’s phenomenal entertainment, fresh and exciting.

The few defendants of the much -and rightly- maligned prequels argue that there is no difference between them and the original trilogy. Actually, nostalgic grown-up fanboys like me are wearing rose-tinted spectacles, shocked that their favourite movies were made for children. And not especially well-made at that. Forgive me being ungracious to someone else’s opinion, but that’s rubbish. The original trilogy was glorious and occasionally ground-breaking cinema embraced by those of all ages thanks to a timeless charm. The prequels were simply dreadful, ill-intentioned and cynical. Maybe they’d have had a chance though if Han Solo or an appropriate avatar had turned up to sell us the new films.

A typical Star Wars narrative is a thing of measured elegance. All the design and work appears to be in pre-production, allowing the plot to unfold easily. Great swathes of exposition are delivered in the swish of a lightsaber, while hiding that it’s all made up, sometimes on the spot; read The Making of The Empire Strikes Back about the various drafts and you’re left with the impression that Darth Vader was sat on a park bench picking petals: “I am Luke’s dad… no, I’m not… yes, I am…”. That’s part of the magic. It’s all rather neat and everyone thinks that was the plan when the only real constant demanded is a focus on character. The Force Awakens has been written by J J Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan with that same focus. Take a sideways look at the structure of all the films (ignoring the prequels) and if you’re going to include Han Solo this far in, his fate is inevitable. Not some superficial fan-baiting spoiler moment, but an organic development.

In the original trilogy Han Solo was one of the characters that set it apart, but why is he so important? It’s simple really. He’s there to tell us how unimportant everything is. When we meet him in A New Hope he has no intricate back-story nor any commitments, except to Chewbacca and that iconic piece of junk, the Millenium Falcon. More importantly, he doesn’t believe in the story. The Force? It’s all mumbo-jumbo. Nor does he care about the Rebellion. He’s pushing the other characters and plot to be accountable and does it with charm. It’s doubly effective because Harrison Ford felt the same way; still, does if you read any of the current interviews! (In another stroke of serendipity Alec Guinness also felt lost and disillusioned in the twilight of his career by having to play the lost and disillusioned Ben Kenobi).

If Episode IV were a calm, flowing river, Solo and Chewie would fly the Falcon like a kid lobbing stones from the shore. Han is utterly unpredictable, which gives the otherwise straightforward plot an edge, one that was desperately missed in Episodes I to III. No-one could have got away with saying “midichlorians” to Han Solo and expect him to have kept a straight face. Han’s sarcastic eye-rolling sense of humour continually disrupts the narrative. In The Empire Strikes Back they have to literally freeze him to shut him up! In the first series of 24, Jack Baur’s wife developed amnesia for a couple of hours, a trick to pace the real story. Same in TESB, but carbonite is much more fun.

Han is back to causing chaos in The Return of the Jedi, but to full advantage of the team; the saga can only conclude when he completely conforms. General Solo, indeed: Fully paid-up member of the Resistance and prospective brother-in-law to Luke Skywalker himself while lending his pirate ship to become part of the fleet. Star Wars has always been about family and accepting Han and Chewie in is one of the saga’s arcs.

But surely now that the literal narrative smuggler is dealt with the Empire can finally win? Hold on… there’s a teddy bear with a rock! The Ewoks take over the unpredictable role in RotJ when Han becomes soft. And yes, I did just defend the Ewoks. Admittedly perhaps Han’s shift in tone and giving his day job to a bunch of muppets was why the trilogy’s third wheel isn’t as fondly remembered. I remember it very fondly, but certainly, it’s rather more routine compared with The Empire Strikes Back.

So 32 years later, where is Han now? Back to being a smuggler, back to what he knows he is good at, but while he is briefly Solo (snigger) he cannot deny his responsibilities as once he did. There is a lovely conceit in the new film that the Jedi are a long-forgotten myth. It’s left to Han Solo of all people to admit to Rey and Finn that the legend is real. This is huge. He’s selling the mumbo-jumbo while filling Ben Kenobi’s shoes too.

Alec Guinness was playing an important trope in A New Hope, that of the mysterious old man (Ben Kenobi) leading the naive hero to their destiny. Unfortunately, it’s usually one-way (as well as Ben, see also Gandalf’s “you will not pass!” in The Fellowship of the Ring). Breaking the hearts of millions of fans, J J Abrams has given that heavy responsibility to Han Solo and without magical/Force powers to resurrect him, I think we have seen the last of the rogue. Harrison Ford plays Han Solo as perfectly as ever this last time. The banter with Chewie never misses a beat and there’s a weight to the characters that can’t be faked. Yet narratively speaking, his departure isn’t going to leave a hole.

Finn played by John Boyega is the closest fit. He plays a Stormtrooper that decides he’s had enough and only rescues Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) because he needs a pilot for the Tie Fighter he’s stealing. Sound like anyone we know? He spends the rest of the film wise-cracking, trying to find a way out and save his own skin. His only concession is a need to help Rey (Daisy Ridley).

And what of the feisty Rey? While the marvellous Daisy Ridley is clearly the equivalent of Mark Hamill, playing the young Skywalker of The Force Awakens, she is also far more independent and capable for herself than Luke’s farm-boy. And as well as having Force powers, she can fly the Falcon so Chewie still has his partner.

Keep a close eye on Finn and Rey in the next episodes. They’re likely to form a very tough duo. Han Solo can rest in deserved peace and Luke Skywalker has room to become something else. I worry about C3PO and R2D2 though…

There is a lesson in Star Wars for any screenwriter: When the plot is done, put Han Solo in it. Well not the actual Han Solo, granted, but turn one of the characters into an argumentative scoundrel who doesn’t agree with you or your silly story. Let him mix things up a bit. Preferably he should have a dog. And an awesome spaceship.

First published on The Digital Fix: http://film.thedigitalfix.com/content/id/78832/solo-affect-the-narrative-of-star-wars.html

Planet of The Apes saga

 ★★★★☆ 

With the new film, Rise of The Planet of The Apes, currently proving to be such a huge hit in cinemas and Tim Burton’s poor remake a distant memory, it’s worth revisiting the original Planet of The Apes and its four sequels. The first film is a classic science-fiction gem, born of the same dystopian paranoia that drove the best of the genre throughout the preceding two decades. “It’s a mad house!”, screams Taylor (Charlton Heston) in the middle of his nightmare and for the viewer, that’s exactly what it could be. If it ended for Taylor like it did for Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, clicking her red heels to get back home, you wouldn’t be surprised that it could all have been a fevered dream. It doesn’t end like that though. Even if you haven’t seen it, you probably know it already, but if you can go into this film blind to its famous twist, then I envy you a little bit.

If you couldn’t manage to avoid the spoilers for 40 years, the film is still worth seeing. It isn’t all about the ending, the themes of which are there from the opening scene. It was the moment science-fiction cinema grew up from 1960s silliness into something more tangible and angry. The premise of being stranded on an upside-down planet may be old fashioned Twilight Zone horror (Rod Serling came up with the finale), but the story unfolds with self-loathing intelligence. Although it has dated, the fact that its 40 year-old ideas still ring true today might even make it scary.

The atmosphere is still effective. Leon Shamroy’s photography of the desolate alien world is supported by a suitably inventive and foreboding score from Jerry Goldsmith. The sound design has always stuck out to me as well, especially during that ending. Although the movie is mainly studio and producer driven, director Franklin J. Schaffner crafted a great film when the odds were against it being made at all, crippled by a crazy premise. Key to realising it was the characterisation of the apes themselves, which is never sensational. The middle section could even be considered mundane, borderline farcical, but it works because the fascination comes from just how human and domesticated the apes are! The make-up by John Chambers is stunning, even today. He won an Academy Award for his work and it’s well deserved because it didn’t detract from the actors’ performance at all; it is they who are crucial for convincing you enough to take the leap of faith the story needs. Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter (Cornelius and Zira) are charming as the couple who try to help Taylor, while Maurice Evans succeeds in what might be the hardest role as sort-of villain Dr. Zaius. Although adapted from a French novel by Pierre Boule, Planet of The Apes is worth comparison with Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (Dr. Zaius isn’t evil; he fears what Taylor represents). There have been three failed attempts (including Heston’s The Omega Man) to bring Matheson’s story to the screen convincingly, while Planet of The Apes covers the same ground brilliantly.

This is ultimately Charlton Heston’s film. He starts off as an unlikeable, arrogant sod and the story is as much about bringing him down a peg or two as anything else, yet still we sympathise with him. He brings great movie star gravitas to the role, growling the dialogue into something iconic (“Get your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!”). He had a lot of memorable roles in his long career, but this will surely stand the test of time more than any other. While the apes convince you of the nightmare scenario, Heston is the conscience.

Now at this point, if you don’t know the ending, stop reading! I’ll just tell you that the sequels vary wildly in quality, but are still worth seeing because they become a saga. Parts three and four are flawed, but still watchable. At the very least, they make for curious comparisons with the new film, which is in parts a remake of Conquest of the Planet of The Apes. Spoilers may lie ahead and as I said before, I envy those who come to the first film blind, so I hope you’ve gone away! I mean that in the nicest way possible.

The first sequel, Beneath The Planet of the Apes, is basically awful for several reasons. The budget was slashed and so the majority of the ape actors are clearly wearing masks. Kim Hunter and Maurice Evans return, but Cornelius is played by David Watson, who is no replacement for Roddy McDowall. James Franciscus is the lead this time and is also no replacement for Charlton Heston (he is in it, but wisely takes a back seat). Franciscus is a second astronaut, stranded on the planet after following Taylor’s ship. Initially Cornelius and Zira help him and he finds his way to the underground Forbidden City. The set is fantastic, but it’s populated by telepathic humans who worship an unexploded bomb as their God. Yes, it is as ridiculous as it sounds and sitting through it can be painful. The first film was such a milestone in cinema and science fiction, but this is a horrible step backwards into 1960s heavy-handed nonsense, with dreadful actors spouting awful dialogue. It sort of still works as a metaphor about the futility of mankind, but it also dilutes that same message of the first story, which is unforgivable. The ending rewards the most dedicated of viewers and packs a punch, but at a cost. In committing to a shock, almost political ending, they give up any hope of a typical sequel. This was before the days when a franchise was an obvious option and clearly they thought viewers still wanted hard-edged sci-fi. Oops.

Beneath the Planet of The Apes was a massive success despite being so awful and the producers must have realised they had made a dreadful mistake by ending it the way they did.

Here, in one franchise, we can see science-fiction giving way to escapist comic-book, audience-friendly fantasy. A realisation that the average cinema-goer was less interested in thinking about nuclear metaphor and more likely to prefer the idea that apes could ride horses while firing machine guns!

And so to get the series back on track, the second sequel, Escape from the Planet of The Apes, begins with a laughable premise: that Cornelius, Zira and another ape, Milo, escaped the doomed planet in Taylor’s repaired ship and crash landed on 1970s Earth! Even in the context of science-fiction, there is no logic in this at all. This is truly the Star Trek IV of the series though, because if you can look past the premise, it is the best of the sequels and a charming, entertaining film to boot. Roddy McDowall is back and his relationship with Kim Hunter’s Zira just as genuine as it ever was. While the 70s vibe has dated very badly and much of the action can’t escape the TV movie look, the dialogue is great fun with an infectious story, reflecting the original. And the ending is emotive too. In the last act, it feels like director Don Taylor finds a fifth gear and the film is lifted with a very powerful scene leading to the finale, again thanks to McDowall’s absolute commitment. It is at this point the series stopped being a metaphor and concentrated on the characters instead. It became a saga, with a mythology, and while I don’t like that it takes us even further away from the simple horror of the original message, at least Planet of The Apes contained the seeds so this path can be considered faithful.

In the fourth film, Conquest of the Planet of The Apes, the gap between the budget and the aspirations of the story had become almost too wide. Despite the limitations, fans of the characters will lap up the epic notions of the plot and it makes for a dark-hearted companion for the previous film. It stands for something when an actor of Roddy McDowall’s calibre comes back for a third time, playing Caesar, the son of his previous role Cornelius. Caesar has grown up in a circus, keeping his powers of speech hidden. Meanwhile, apes have become the new household pet after a virus wiped out all the dogs and cats (I know, it’s another crazy premise, but stick with it!), but the trusting apes are being treated like slaves and the intelligent Caesar orchestrates a revolution. Just as with the previous film, the premise is silly, but where Escape from the Planet of The Apes had charm, this has gravitas. McDowall’s performance is extraordinary. From dealing with responsibility, quietly pulling together his plan and finally struggling to contain his revenge, this is epic stuff and all from behind a mask! Andy Serkis is simply marvellous in the new film, but Roddy McDowall also recognised the power in that role. It’s just a shame the production as a whole can’t quite live up to his performance. It’s a film that feels a too small, but still, director J. Lee Thompson does well to hide it, letting his lead actor inhabit the role fully and getting the series back to its nightmarish origins with extra violence (scenes previously cut have been added for the latest release); in some ways it might even be seen as a low-budget forerunner of the wave of adult, deadly serious violent sci-fi that came in the 1980s (Mad Max, Robocop, Terminator, et al). Well worth seeing.

Battle for the Planet of The Apes is the fifth film and while the wheels don’t completely come off, they definitely wobble. It fails to convince on several levels, not least that despite the title, the series has never escaped North America. And the size of the cast amounts more to ‘Scuffle for the Planet of The Apes’ rather than a Battle. With the budget as low as it clearly was, there was no way to realise the ambition of the story that purports to be on a worldwide scale. Once again, the premise is cursed by a lack of logic. It is now about 30-ish years after Conquest of the Planet of The Apes and Caesar (still stubbornly, but brilliantly played by Roddy McDowall) leads a civilised village of apes. However, his family and friends are at the same levels of intelligence and speech as in the first film, which seems ridiculous to me. The idea was the Apes evolved over hundreds if not thousands of years, yet they’ve progressed this far inside a generation.

Meanwhile, the nuclear war has happened, leaving pockets of human survivors or mutants in the Forbidden City (as well realised a set as in the first sequel), to which Caesar goes in the hope of learning about his past and his destiny. While he is gone, the gorillas make a bid for power. Once again the meat of the plot is actually really good! With a couple of tweaks, it would have made an excellent sequel to the first film, but setting it so soon after Conquest undermines it. McDowall turns in another excellent performance, but the weak production is impossible to overcome.

The superb first film started a series that is very uneven, cursed by poor decisions in concepts, but largely rescued by the characters’ charm and dedication of the actors playing them. Meanwhile the doom laden mythology continues to attract new fans, despite the low budget sequels that cause frustration.

Enjoy the series for what it is and marvel at the skills of a cast who kept it alive for so long. You’ll likely leave it with bitter-sweet nostalgia about what could have been, which feeds into the well realised Rise of the Planet of The Apes.

The latest film is a concerted and passionate effort to address that and let this series live up to its potential. Well, the fantasy comic-book potential. It’s clear that director Rupert Wyatt and writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver know the original saga well and they’ve done an brilliant job to ret-con the plot and rebuild it into something more feasible. Ok, I use that term loosely! But if you can accept the idea of apes becoming the dominant race, then brain experimentation and Apocalypse inducing viruses are far more acceptable than the original attempt. Yet they’ve kept all the stuff that worked. This is a superb modern blockbuster.